In April, the latest rendition of the First Couple awkwardly holding hands hit the internet, and we’re still cringing. As the president and First Lady Melania Trump waited to greet French president Emmanuel Macron during his visit to the White House, Mrs. Trump—looking as elegant as ever—finally stretched her fingers out to loosely accept her husband’s hand. This, however, came after several uncomfortable moments of President Trump’s pinky finger reaching out hesitatingly to peck at her hand.
It was an inane moment captured by cameras, but it seemed to speak volumes. As one person tweeted: “She REALLY didn’t want to hold his hand…”
Here’s the thing about hand-holding, though: It’s really not for everyone. Take Prince William and Kate Middleton, for example. You hardly ever see them exhibit PDA (though that probably has more to do with their royal status than anything else). But as a writer for Quartz recently pointed out: “Holding hands with another grownup is an experience that is awkward at best. Even when you do like that person, there’s a solid chance their hand is a bit clammier, softer, rougher, weaker, or smaller than you might have expected.” I mean, you can see the cringeworthy-ness, right?
But according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, there is an upside to holding hands with your romantic partner: Doing so can actually ease physical pain.
Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder and University of Haifa were interested in learning more about “interpersonal synchronization,” a phenomenon in which humans can physiologically sync up. They recruited 22 heterosexual couples who’d been together for at least a year; they monitored each person’s brainwave activity while subjecting the couple to six different scenarios lasting two minutes each. The female partners were chosen to be the “pain targets” while the men were the “observers,” and the conditions included sitting together but not touching; sitting together holding hands; and sitting in adjacent rooms. The scenarios were repeated as the woman endured a heat stimuli on her left arm—like a champ, of course.
The study’s authors discovered that when the partners were in the same room with each other but not touching, there was some synchronicity of their brain waves. When they held hands, however, the connection increased. Talk about having love on the brain.
To explain why the women may have felt soothed when their partners touched them, the study offered a couple of possible explanations gleaned from past research: For example, the authors write, being touched by someone who seems empathetic may increase “the tendency of the target to feel understood, which in turn activates reward mechanisms” that decrease pain. They also suggest that “interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other.” As a result, “interpersonal touch may increase empathic sharing, assisting the observer in feeling the target’s pain as well as in transmitting emotional support to the pain target,” thus resulting in a reduction in pain.
Ultimately, lead author Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher at CU Boulder, said in a statement, the research “illustrates the power and importance of human touch. You may express empathy for a partner's pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated.”
In other words, sure, maybe your partner’s hand is a little clammy, but clearly empathy goes a long way.